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Babies on a boat: When a floating hospital helped cure Boston’s children

Nurses cared for children in Ward B. Open Air Ward on Boston's Floating Hospital for Children in August, 1919.-

Tufts Medical Center’s announcement Thursday that it is closing its pediatric hospital ends a chapter on more than a century of providing care to Boston children. Many people might not remember that the hospital began onboard a ship sailing in Boston Harbor.

A far cry from the sprawling hospitals that are seen across Boston today, the Floating Hospital for Children was established in 1894 by a group of Bostonians led by the Rev. Rufus B. Tobey. Tobey saw an urgency to provide care to children that were living in acute poverty in Victorian Boston’s crowded slums.

On a summer night in 1893 while crossing the South Boston Bridge, Tobey noticed many mothers with infants walking along the shore for relief from the heat in their tenement buildings. That scene was the inspiration for a hospital ship, according to a 1957 article in the journal Pediatrics.


The Boston Floating Hospital for children on Oct. 7, 1909. Boston Globe Archive

In those early days of medicine, when little was known about caring for sick children, it was believed that fresh, ocean air had healing properties, according to Tufts Children’s Hospital’s website.

At the time in Boston, an estimated one in 10 children died from illness before they reached age 5, and infant mortality spiked four to five times the baseline rate during the summer. Many babies suffered from cholera infantum, largely due to contaminated milk and water. Bringing children out of their environments for clean care could give them the best shot for recovery.

Tobey’s friend, the writer and historian Edward Everett Hale, helped raise enough money for the first five trips to be made, each equipped with medical staff, clean supplies, and several hundred mothers and babies.

On July 25, 1894, the rented barge, Clifford, was towed away from Pickert’s Wharf in East Boston, and tickets were given to mothers with sick infants because it was believed they would most benefit from the trip.


Every day, mothers and their babies would gather at the pier while cots, bassinets, diapers, and equipment for sterilizing milk were put aboard, and each baby was checked to make sure they carried no communicable disease. During the first summer, 1,100 infants were treated on what had been dubbed the Boston Floating Hospital.

Mrs. Parker Field, the superintendent’s wife, taught children games and songs by way of entertaining the kindergarten class on the open-air deck in 1906. Digital Collections and Archives, Tufts University

The care given by the hospital was unique for the time. For one, parents were included in the care of their children while most hospitals treated children separately because it was believed “parents were apart of the problem” and should be excluded, Dr. John Kulig, a Tufts pediatrician who wrote a book about the floating hospital, told WBUR.

Educating the parent along with the child was a new and revolutionary practice, according to Kulig, and involving mothers allowed for more long-term prevention of disease. Because the Floating Hospital was just a day trip, nurses would also make home visits to ensure sterilization practices were still being carried out.

The nurses and doctors on the hospital also established a food laboratory and began experimenting with baby formula. This work established the way modern-day doctors, nurses, and parents view and use milk and formula.

The Floating Hospital was upgraded in 1905 to a larger, 170-foot ship built specially to serve as a pediatric hospital. Then, in the 1920s, the hospital expanded to an on-shore location for research and some clinical specialties, and also began its affiliation with Tufts University School of Medicine and Tufts Medical Center’s predecessor, the Boston Dispensary.


In 1927, the Floating Hospital was destroyed in a fire; luckily no one was on board. Instead of rebuilding the ship, its trustees decided to expand the onshore location, which later became Tufts Children’s Hospital.

Child in life preserver in 1914. Digital Collections and Archives, Tufts University

Grace Gilson can be reached at